Your Guide to a St. John, USVI Getaway

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"We're here because we're not all there" is the unofficial slogan for Coral Bay, a town on the island of St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The slogan could fit St. John itself, an extremely hilly, 20-square-mile piece of tropical paradise that boasts no airport, one ferry dock and a national park that covers two-thirds of the island. Even Cruz Bay, the island's major (and only other) town, is a charming seaside spot, though parking is scarce and the area can be overrun by cruise-ship visitors.

Many Coral Bay residents feel the slogan also separates their village from Cruz Bay -- and many visitors like the smaller town even better. The tiny outpost on the far side of the island from the ferry landing is surrounded by truly deserted beaches, a lively restaurant and shopping scene -- and none of the crowds and resorts of many Caribbean destinations.

Here's the lowdown on this laid-back community, along with a few recession-friendly tips to use once you arrive.

Getting There

Most visitors to St. John fly in to St. Thomas. Passenger ferries run from there to Cruz Bay, where buses, taxis and rental cars -- the best way to see the island -- are available. Rentals start at roughly $75 a day.

Saving tip: An airport rental and a 20-minute drive to the car barge can cut $30 or more off your daily rate. Make sure the rental company allows travel to St. John. While Budget and others do, some don't.

St. John isn't big on addresses, or even road names. To get to Coral Bay from the car barge landing in Cruz Bay, take a right off the landing and follow signs for Route 10. The eight-mile trip will take a bit more than 20 minutes on steep and curvy roads -- more if you're learning to drive on the left side of the road.

You'll know you're in Coral Bay when you hit the triangle, a junction with a bus stop and signs for most of the town's businesses. Take a right and you'll head south toward Salt Pond Bay, passing many shops and restaurants along the way. Take a left and you'll pass the dinghy dock and Skinny Legs, a casual eatery, on the way to the East End.

Where to Stay

Most visitors to Coral Bay rent villas or cabins, through property managers or property owners. Most rentals are scattered in the hills above the bay, and they often come with ocean views -- particularly impressive at sunrise -- and steep roads or driveways. One-bedrooms start around $850/week.

 

Saving tip: Rates are much lower in the off-season, typically May to November.

For a hotel, you'll have to venture outside of Coral Bay. The Westin St. John, a Starwood Hotels property, and Caneel Bay are located mid-island, closer to Cruz Bay. Rooms are $395 and up at both. St. John is also home to two eco-resorts: Maho Bay Camps, on the north shore, and Estate Concordia (both at www.maho.org). The latter sits in the mountains above Salt Pond Bay, on the Coral Bay end of the island.

What to Do

  • The beaches. Trunk Bay, named by many publications as one of the world's best beaches, and the rest of the island's north shore beaches are eight to 20 minutes by car from Coral Bay. The beaches closer to Coral Bay are also amazing. Salt Pond, a long half-moon strip of sand surrounding a well-protected bay, is a 10-minute walk from the road -- and seldom crowded. Kiddel Bay, a rocky beach just past Salt Pond, and Haulover, out toward the East End, offer some of the island's best snorkeling.
    Saving tip: Bring your own snorkel gear. Rentals are plentiful, but cost about $50 a week.
  • The food. The open-air Shipwreck Landing has excellent fish specialties and steaks. Skinny Legs serves tremendous burgers and a delicious portabella sandwich for vegetarians. Don't miss Sunday brunch at Miss Lucy's, en route to Salt Pond: crabcake eggs Benedict and other island specialties are served under seagrape trees at the edge of the ocean, and accompanied by live jazz. Most every place offers mahi-mahi, a local fish, in some form.
    Saving tip: Most rentals have full kitchens and grills, so cook some meals at home. For provisions, visit the two small markets in Coral Bay or stock up at Starfish Market in Cruz Bay, which is a full-service grocery store by mainland standards and best for meat and fish.
  • The shopping. Serious shoppers will want to hit Cruz Bay. But Coccoloba, the Coral Bay shopping center built in 2005, offers several jewelry, souvenir and local art options. More of the same is available in the Skinny Legs complex. Sloop Jones, on the East End, makes and sells hand-painted clothing and artwork.
  • Night life. There are no dance clubs here, though Island Blues has live music almost every night. (It closed for a time last summer, but is open again.) You can also find music at Skinny's or Shipwreck Landing. Both are almost always good for rum punches, painkillers (a powerful rum-coconut concoction) and far-ranging discussions with locals and ex-pats.
    Saving tip: If you're staying at a villa, you won't find a better -- or cheaper -- place for a drink than your deck.
  • The hike. The Ram Head Trail, from the east end of Salt Pond Beach, is a nearly one-mile scramble over a ridge to a pebble beach, then back up a promontory that sits 200 feet above the ocean and feels like the end of the earth. Hike at sunset for spectacular views over St. Thomas.
  • The water. The island has no shortage of charter craft, several from the Coral Bay dinghy dock. Try a sail on White Wing if you can find Clark Beam's brochure around town (he doesn't have a Web site), or Long Distance. Both can take you to snorkeling spots, empty beaches accessible only by boat or the British Virgin Islands (passport required). Crabby's Watersports in Coral Bay rents kayaks and small motorboats.
    Saving tip: Sunset cruises tend to be cheapest (from $50, with drinks and snacks).
  • The book. Pam Gaffin's St. John: Feet, Fins and Four-Wheel Drive is an invaluable resource to find beaches, trails and anything else you need on St. John.

 

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